“The Truth of Artificial Immunity:”

A Personal Reflection on the Nature of Implants and the Body

By Sarah Perkins

When I was very small, I was certain that the scar on my stomach was the bones of a little fish swallowed in the womb. In the bathtub, I would trace over the pale and ridged lines, link the signs of suture to a fossilized spine, and think that this was proof that I was truly a part of nature. Original and Organic. We lived in suburbia—the houses identical teeth in a man-made smile—but I would stare at the scar on my stomach and dream myself wild. I was barefoot with a big mouth, untamed and overgrown baby-teeth, wrapped-up in a seaweed certainty that an ocean existed inside of me. The truth of my birth was a wave of primordial possibility that kissed at the edges of my skin. It made me whole. It made me proud. It made me heavy. It made me drown. Almost.

The truth hurts.

The truth is that I never learned how to swim.

The truth is that the ocean is filled with more plastic than fish.


When I was very small, a post fossa cyst tried to swallow my brain in the womb.


It means ‘water on the brain,’ and plastic tubing drains buried beneath the skin. It means that, like Jean-Luc Nancy in “L’Intrus” (2000), “I must be monitored, tested, measured (3);” my ‘self’ made not an ocean, but an implant. Ordered and Othered. Artificial. It is a “strangerness (that) becomes ordinary” (Nancy 9) —the fish of my flesh forgotten in a catch of new symptoms. Headaches. Headaches. Headaches. These are the terms and conditions of my childhood.

The doctors pin my limbs to the metal table with a lead blanket and tell me to be still. They do not know my name, and I don’t know theirs, but they want to see inside my skull. They position my body like a ragdoll in an elaborate game of house that I never agreed to play. An interiority made exteriority, they whisper from behind the X-ray barrier about ventricle width and eye-dilation. I want to tell them about the nature of scars that won’t heal and about the stories of our birth that we tell ourselves to keep ourselves safe, but I know that they will not hear me. No one listens to the lab rat.

After all, my “identity is equivalent to my immunity” (Nancy 9), and my immunity is equivalent to a careful balance of cerebrospinal fluid kept at bay. Patient without patience, for almost twenty-three years, my body has existed outside of my own hands.

Eula Biss writes with a kind of fondness in On Immunity: An Inoculation (2014) that “our bodies are not boundaries” (43). She writes of the “magical” and the “mundane” technology that is the human hands (Biss 80). Through the trauma of giving birth, human hands intervened to save Biss’s life. Through the trauma of being born, my life was also saved by human hands. Human hands wielding scalpels. Human hands drilling bone. Human hands mitigating intracranial pressure and so, fashioning “the possibility of a network wherein, life and death is shared out” in spools of plastic intertwined with capillaries and tissue (Nancy 8). Careful carnage—the evidence of a million-year-old act of compassion.

“You’ve had a lot of people’s hands in you” (Ibid).

Biss takes comfort in this. I, too, should take comfort in this.

But I don’t.

I don’t, because, in those human hands, I cannot help but to smell the sanitization.

I don’t, because, in those human hands, I cannot help but to remember the cold touches, the commands to be still.

I cannot help but to think that the implant in my brain gives others the impunity to press against my vulnerabilities. I will never know the feeling of the back of my head. I am Achilles, dipped so far in the River Styx, but in the end, not far enough. I am trapped in limbo, looking over a lopsided right shoulder, and left waiting for a Paris to find me with his arrow.

And so, I worry.

I worry that the man sitting behind me on the bus will reach between the seats and crush the place where my head bulges plastic with his fingers, killing me instantly.

I worry that I will never be able to shave my head, even just for the experience.

Ed Cohen writes in A Body Worth Defending: Immunity Biopolitics, and the Apotheosis of the Modern Body (2009), that the “modern body” is “well-bounded against the collective public body” (7). But in my fears, and in my future, and in all those human fingers pushing, prodding, poking, and pulling me along the path of technological transformation, what definition of individuality does my body possess?

The implant is a sign that I am human.

The implant is a sign that I will never be human.

When the glow-in-the-dark stars on my ceiling have dimmed late at night, I lie in bed and think that it is entirely possible to drown from the inside-out. There is an ocean waiting inside of me.

And I worry.